People Who Make NY Special

Penny Arcade on Sex and Censorship (Still!)

The grande dame of downtown performance art is bringing sexy back to the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.

Photo by Albie Mitchell

The avant-garde performance artist, activist, writer, and director Penny Arcade has been a staple of the downtown theater scene for more than 50 years—and she has some thoughts on the changes she’s seen New York City go through over the last half century. “Look around! The infrastructure is falling apart, drainage problems are incredible, traffic is at nightmare levels, the subway is filthy, buses are being cut every year, affordable housing has disappeared…” Eventually, she grudgingly admits to an appreciation of the city’s community gardens, but it’s clear Arcade could easily continue narrating the steady march of deterioration she believes NYC is undergoing. And who could argue with an artist who has lived and thrived through the city’s many incarnations?

One could reasonably cast Arcade as the still-kicking-against-the-pricks spirit of the renegade downtown scene that made 20th-century NYC what it was in the first place. Starting as a member of the Playhouse of the Ridiculous in the 1960s, Arcade’s free-flowing pen, iconoclastic spirit, and relentless work ethic have kept her and her work onstage ever since.

performer penny arcade
Photo by Albie Mitchell

Arcade’s most popular work by far is Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!a “sex and censorship show” that blends live monologue, performance art, and erotic dance. In advance of the most recent staging of B!D!F!W! at the Public Theater as part of its annual Under the Radar Festival, I spoke with Arcade about the birth of the neo-burlesque movement, her Lower East Side Biography Project, and what she considers sexy.

What Should We Do: Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! was originally built at the start of the ’90s as a response to the censorious funding restrictions of the NEA. In a post-Trump world, is that still a relevant message?
Penny Arcade: It’s sadly more relevant now than it was 25 years ago. B!D!F!W! isn’t topical theater; it is a celebration of our life force, which is sexual but never vulgar or tacky. We take the mood of going to a strip joint—one that most of the people in our audience will never experience—and remove the manipulation, boredom, and ennui, but keep the sexiness, the friendliness, the nonjudgmental acceptance, and inclusion.

I am first and foremost an entertainer and, like all my work, B!D!F!W! is high-content comedy that critiques society while still maintaining a pro-sex celebration of individuality. When it was first produced, B!D!F!W! warned that the politically correct censorship issues that were flooding America from the right wing would only lead to self-censorship. Twenty-five years later, political correctness from the left is in the drinking water and has created a culture where everyone is afraid to speak.

WSWD: So is there any pleasure to be had in feeling that you’ve been proven right by history?
Arcade: There is amazing satisfaction and pleasure in having created a unique, lasting, theatrical experience about real life that is more relevant today than ever! However, “I told you so” is always a sad, empty, and bitter experience. I take being a quarter century ahead of the curve lightly, because it happens to be true of all my work. I believe that is where the term “visionary” applies.

performer penny arcade
Photo by Albie Mitchell

WSWD: Following more than 1,500 shows, do you still discover something new in each performance of B!D!F!W!?
Arcade: Every night is different, because the audience is different every night. The show is a metaphysical sleight-of-hand experience. B!D!F!W! created the international neo-burlesque scene back when no burlesque movement existed. No other contemporary burlesque show can touch the unique experience we provide, because it is not just a “show.” It is an experience between the audience and the erotic dancers, with me as the ringleader. No one who has seen it has ever forgotten how free and included it made them feel.

It is an experience between the audience and the erotic dancers, with me as the ringleader. No one who has seen it has ever forgotten how free and included it made them feel.

WSWD: What is the role of the dancers within the performance?
Arcade: The energy between the Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! dancers and the audience cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Our erotic dancers have been carefully chosen for their dancing ability and openheartedness. The cast for Joe’s Pub is exceptional and composed of some of the best of the hundreds of dancers who have worked with us worldwide, from Australia and Poland and Ireland to Canada, L.A., and Zurich.

WSWD: What’s sexy to you?
Arcade: I find honesty, wit, humor, individuality, integrity, and strong values to be the sexiest combination.

performer penny arcade
Photo by Albie Mitchell

WSWD: Can you tell me a bit about the Lower East Side Biography Project?
Arcade: My longtime collaborator, Steve Zehentner, and I created that series in 1999; it has broadcast and streamed weekly every week since then. We interview highly self-individuated people and then edit me out of the conversation so that the public gets a one-on-one experience with amazing artists, activists, and authentic rebels. I was moved to create the series in order to save the points of view of the iconic people who created New York’s downtown sensibility in the latter part of the 20th century and to reinsert an intergenerational voice into society.

Every young performer should be able to tell the difference between how socially successful they are and how artistically successful they are.

WSWD: Who are some of your favorite interviews from the project?
Arcade: All the interviews are exciting because they are such powerful individuals. A few of my favorites are Jonas MekasTuli Kupferberg, Robert Creeley, Lee Black ChildersSister Elizabeth Kelliher, Chi Chi Valenti, Sarah Schulman, and Judith Malina.

I regret not interviewing Rene RicardRoger RichardsAnne ArdolinoMarian Seldes, and Grace Paley. They all said yes. I wasn’t quick enough.

WSWD: Who inspires you?
Arcade: Anyone with guts, kindness, individuality, and a unique point of view.

WSWD: You’ve been outspoken in your belief that New York’s gentrification is a scourge. What do you think are the most effective ways to fight that overdevelopment?
Arcade: Gentrification can only be combatted by awareness and refusal. We refuse the empty, the sterile, and the gentrified, and seek out the unique, the original, the businesses who stand up to and oppose gentrification.

WSWD: What advice would you give to a young artist starting out here?
Arcade: Every young performer should be able to tell the difference between how socially successful they are and how artistically successful they are. I think it is also important to recognize that New York City is no longer a cultural capital; it is a marketing capital. People should develop their work where they do not need to devote three weeks a month to paying their rent. When your work can stand on its own two feet, then come to New York to market it.

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